Fifteen Movies

Another Facebook quiz thingie. Two in a week. Ye-gads!

This time, it’s fifteen movies that will always stick with you. Here goes:

Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)
Yes, The Empire Strikes Back is a better movie, but COME ON – I was 8 years old and I saw this in the Coronet, the grand San Francisco movie palace that had its sound system upgraded just for the film, and had no idea what to expect, even though by the time I saw it, I had all the action figures and all of the first series trading cards because my parents insisted on waiting for the lines to go down before taking us to see it. As much of a cliche as it was at USC, this movie is the reason I went to film school.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
I found the book in my dad’s sci-fi collection, loved it, and wanted to see the movie when it was being shown on a local TV station, but my dad, in rare form, refused and insisted I see it on the big screen. He found out that it was playing at the Laurel, a second-run theater that occasionally showed classics and art house films. It had previously been a porno theater, and the red velvet tapestries were racy leftovers from those days. They must have owned a print of 2001 because they showed it once every month. And I made my parents drop me off to see it every month for over a year, stopping only when the theater closed down for good.

Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
Professor Drew Casper showed this half way through his CNTV190 Intro To Film class at USC, after we were “ready for it.” The anticipation might have set expectations too high, but it really is as great as all the hoity-toity film snobs say. Truly the greatest film ever made.

Day For Night (1974, Francios Truffaut)
Another film school discovery. Francios Truffaut makes a film about making a film, complete with images of himself as a kid stealing images (well, lobby cards) from Citizen Kane. Watching this film in the second row of the Norris Theater on the USC campus, I forgot that I was 400 miles from home, still feeling a little lost and lonely in my first semester in college. When I exited the theater, I was seriously disoriented to find that I was not at my usual theater back home, but still in Los Angeles. That complete surrender to a film has only happened a couple times since, and I think that despite his New Wave pedigree, Truffaut would have been very happy to know that his film had been so emotionally engaging on someone so many years later. My most important contribution to the planning of my wedding was choosing a cue from George Delerue’s wonderful score to play after the ceremony.

F For Fake (1974, Orson Welles)
Welles’s last proper film is probably closest in spirit to what he wanted to achieve with his career. The film is a documentary, mocumentary, hoax, and magic trick all rolled into one. It touches on so many subjects, each of which could be its own film, but none feel short changed. If you have any interest in Picasso, art forgery, hoaxes, con men, or eccentric billionaires, you should check it out.

Nostalghia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky)
If the film buffs will forgive me, I must honestly say that I can’t stand most of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. While filed with gorgeous imagery, they’re also long, boring, and seem to be pointless. But I got sucked into Nostalghia like I did Day For Night. A mystical, atmospheric dream of a film that I find haunting years later. (I also love Tarkovsky’s Solaris and The Sacrifice, if that helps my film snob cred any.)

La Belle et la Bete (1946, Jean Cocteau)
Another dreamy atmospheric film, a retelling of the Beauty And The Beast story. It’s lovely all by itself, but is also wonderful with Philip Glass’s opera as a score.

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928, Carl Th. Dreyer)
Another dream state of a movie. Made in 1928 as a silent film, but it never feels that old. Dreyer’s use of close ups, and the stark, minimalist atmosphere of the film make it so engaging. Much can be said about the film’s historical importance, as well, but none of that is critical for appreciating the film. The Criterion edition has a score recorded by a vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, which is also quite mesmerizing and adds quite nicely to the film.

The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah was an American treasure who, like Orson Welles, never got to achieve his full potential. Years of scrounging for money and being forced to make concessions has dulled his career in retrospect. The Wild Bunch is his masterpiece, the closest to pure Peckinpah as he ever got. It changed everything about westerns and action films, and is every bit as powerful today as it was 40 years ago.

The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
John Ford is another American treasure, but he had the luxury of making films his way for decades, and he made many great films. The Searchers is his masterpiece, simply the finest western ever made. It is the fashion to dismiss John Wayne as a stereotype of old-fashioned American Jingoism, but if you ever needed proof of why he was a superstar, this is it.

Shop Around The Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch)
While this film gets lumped in with the depression-era screwball comedy masterpieces, it really isn’t one, and it set the mold for every light romantic comedy made to this day. But none have outshone the original, certainly not the damned Nora Ephron who will burn in Hell for all eternity for her crimes against the cinema, not the least of which is her vile attempt to “remake” this film. Lubitsch was the master, and you would be better served picking any of his films over just about anything made in the last 50 years.

Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati)
Tati only made five feature films, and any one of them would be worthy to appear on this list, but there is a special place in my heart for Playtime – if only for the job interview waiting room scene. Tati had a Buster Keaton-like knack for the bumbling everyman, blissfully wandering his way through a city full of wondrous technological horrors, filled with people looking to live life to the fullest. Along the way, just about everything that can go wrong does, but our intrepid hero does his best to keep the train on the rails and make everyone happy. The humor is never at anyone’s expense, and the wonders are always genuine. And the romance is sweet as honey but never cloying.

Pigs And Battleships (1961, Shohei Imamura)
A black comedy full of contradictions, set during the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan. There is resentment of the Americans, but a love of American culture (particularly criminal culture). A young kid who wants to make his mark in the underworld, earning a living in the black market and taking advantage of the American Navy. His girlfriend wants him to move to the country and start a family, but this is not meant to be. This is a comedy, but a dark, melodramatic one, with a hilarious sub-plot featuring terminal cancer and hit men, and an exciting climax involving pigs and machine guns.
For many years, the only print of this film in the United States was owned by a woman in Pasadena, who didn’t mind loaning it to schools and film festivals, but she also had control over the domestic rights and refused to allow it to be released to the home video market. So I had to make do with a Japanese laserdisc with no subtitles – and this was the only laserdisc I refused to sell when getting rid of my collection. Criterion recently put out a Imamura box set with three rarely seen films, including this gem.

My Life As A Dog (1985, Lasse Halstrom)
A perfect coming-of-age story about a 12 year old Swedish boy who has to worry about his mother’s failing health, the doomed Russian space dog Laika, and his first love. Halstrom has since come to Hollywood and made some fine films, but none quite as good as this.

Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)
I had seen parts of this on TV as a kid, and dismissed it for being “old” but decided to give the Marx Bros. another chance one night when the New Beverly Cinema was showing Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. My life felt poorer for having waited so long. The Paramount Marx Bros. films are all fantastic, but Duck Soup has the famous family in peak form, with perfect timing and a roller coaster race from start to finish less than 70 minutes later.

These are exactly the first 15 films I came up with. While writing about them, other films came to mind that I wished I had room for – but thinking about it, they were mostly for directors whose bodies of work I love (Buster Keaton, Woody Allen, Harold Lloyd, Wes Anderson) rather than individual films. And maybe a few more recent films that haven’t had enough percolation time to make a list like this yet.

One Comment

  1. Posted 7 August 2009 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

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